I did it. After a year of picking it up, putting it down, checking out an episode, before setting it aside, only to come back later, hardly remembering the choices I’d made, I finally finished Life is Strange. And–although it shouldn’t surprise me–the review I gave after having only finished the first two episodes, the place on my top 5 list after having only dabbled in the third, I don’t believe were written from a position of actually knowing what the game was trying to tell me, but rather from one with a severe lack of understanding, trying to guess at how I felt and would feel about the game as a whole, without actually knowing.
All of this–my finishing the game, this article, my thoughts on it all–was brought about by a conversation I had a week ago. My girlfriend’s teenage niece and nephew were in town, and while we were talking about video games, I brought up Life is Strange as one the niece in particular should try because of how much she may love it.
As I was explaining it, and doing my best to strip away from the explanation the spoilers that I’d come to see so far, I realized I really didn’t know the game all that well. I’d sung its praises ever since playing it earlier in the year, but had yet to move past the dramatic conclusion of the game’s second episode to see much of what had, supposedly, made the game so great. It felt silly, telling this teenager about how incredible this game was because of how well it represented the teenage life, without having completed the story so as to form a much fuller picture.
I owed it to myself to wrap it up, even if it meant starting over.
So I did just that. I forsook my original game save; I began from the beginning, making many of the same decisions I’d made originally so that I could actually see them played out in full, and continued on past where I’d stopped originally to the ever increasingly dramatic and whacked out conclusion.
And I loved it all. Well…most of it all.
When the final episode came out a couple of months ago I remember seeing a number of articles about how much of a mess the finale was–and after finishing it up, I found that to be true, for the most part, but a story is not its ending and Life is Strange is no exception.
When I wrote those articles originally about how great this game was, I’d failed to truly understand the core of the game. I saw shy Max trying to be who she wanted under the weight of crippling creative expectation. I saw the fallout of bullying gone way too wrong and how it affected the lives of many. I saw rich kids and mean girls, quiet nerds and rebels, the thread that held them all together and how quickly it could all unravel.
To me, everything was high school. It was girls growing up. It was friendship and choice and life and confidence wrapped up into an all familiar package, but I missed something along the way.
Life is Strange revolves around altering time, around creating and manipulating the people and conversations in such a way so as to have the best possible outcome every time. And by the end of it all, if you chose to do so, every person can have come to love Max, regardless of how they originally felt about her.
Such is life.
It isn’t unrealistic to believe that a person, a protagonist of a tale, could be liked by everyone. I mean, that’s what we would want…right? But there’s something, after having played through it all and looking back at the whole that leaves me a little unsettled. Regardless of the weight of a conversation or a circumstance, there is, the majority of the time, an option for a redo. Going back to change an answer or return to the start of a conversation with information you didn’t have when you originally dove in is common and encouraged–the game prompts you when you’re able to do so–but, and it doesn’t feel this way so much in the midst of the gameplay, it feels kind of…wrong.
The idea that someone could tell you exactly what you want to hear, the thought that our best friendships could be built up not because of genuine regard for our well being and interests, but in an attempt to garner the best life for them doesn’t sit right with me. And the game, I think, tries to tell you that.
See, when I began Life is Strange originally I saw it as the girl who had yet had the option to let her voice be heard, who was developing into a person through this conflict, through this mystery, coming into her own being, coming into understanding what it meant to be an artist, a teenager, a friend, herself–and while it is about that, all of that really, there’s something more there.
The majority of fiction that uses time travel as a device attempts to tell a cautionary tale about why the time travel was unneeded or how little, at the very least, we should mess with, or should be able to mess with, the timeline we are on. It often tells us that we don’t need time travel–that the life we would want, the person we could be can be made and created without having to go back and fix things, rather–by paying attention to the future to come and the people and relationships within it. It’s a Wonderful Life is like this. So is Groundhog Day. And A Christmas Carol.
There’re plenty of examples.
But Life is Strange actually calls you on it.
Toward the end of the final episode, Max is faced with herself–well, a nightmarish version of herself–who tells her that her only reason for caring about Arcadia Bay and the people within it, her only reason for wanting to move forward and fix anything at all is that she has cultivated this perfect life through the use of time-travel, and the apocalypse looming on the front door step isn’t just a threat to the lives of the people, but a threat to the life she’s created.
Sure, bad events follow Max like a plague, and some things just can’t be changed, but Max is able, if she wants, to be loved by all, to have the life that she wants–to a point. She is able to bring about her own fame, her own success, something that may not have happened otherwise through her own means and opportunity, and this game is telling her, “screw you” for choosing that–”screw you” player for facilitating this puppetry.
When I first ran across this scene, it seemed inevitable. It seemed like a gate toward her own personal growth. It seemed like a realization that had to come wherein she would realize that if the need arose where she would no longer be able to use her abilities, she would be okay simply relying on herself. But there’s a part of us all, when faced with that scene, that rebels against that assertion.
“It wasn’t manipulation,” we think. “I was creating the best life here. The best Max. The best game.” But the reality is that most fiction involving time-travel tries only to inform the viewer and the characters within it that time-travel is unnecessary. They rarely, if ever, give you the opportunity or the choice to create a separate, possibly perfect reality. And while that scene irked me the first time I saw it, I can’t help but think of how right it was now.
Life is Strange is a game that revels in the pop culture, social media, celebrity worshipping time we live in and so much of its content, so many of its characters, are products of that space. Included in that group is the idea of being self referential and meta which is a much more modern way of telling a story.
That scene was calling us out, calling me out. It wasn’t just telling me that her life could have been better or worse had she not done X, but it was telling me that the choices we made, the choices we were given, were ultimately not in her, or the world’s, best interest.
It’s stuff like that that is making me write a post about this game. It’s the twists, the emotion, the campy, cheese-filled dialogue that seems to forcefully fall out of some of the character’s mouths.
Despite its faults, Life is Strange has managed to be a story that matters, that truly hammers in the point that the past is set for a reason, that the life we are living now is potentially the best life, and the bad choices we may have made will only affect us positively in some unforeseen way. It may not be the best reviewed, most awarded game in the world, but it certainly is, in other ways that matter, one of the bests.